Tag Archives: Margaret Dumont

Dramatic School (1938, Robert B. Sinclair)

Given Dramatic School is all about top-billed Luise Rainer’s rise of stage stardom, it might help if she were actually the protagonist of the story, instead of its—occasional—subject. Because Rainer’s got to share the film with a bunch of other characters, none particularly interesting. There’s Rand Brooks, who’s the headmaster’s son and from a long line of actors. Then there’s Gale Sondergaard as the renowned stage actress turned instructor, who resents having to teach in general and Rainer specifically. Though Rainer idolizes her. Supposedly. We don’t ever really see much of it. And then there’s second-billed Paulette Goddard, who doesn’t have much interested in acting, just gossiping with her classmates and dating a string of wealthy men and refusing to marry any of them.

Virginia Grey, Lana Turner, and Ann Rutherford play some of the other students. Rutherford is dating Brooks and ends up getting more to do than either Grey or Turner (Turner gets fourth billing, which is way too high even without Rutherford).

The film takes place in Paris, which only makes sense when Rainer is onscreen because no one else even hints at a French accent. Rainer goes to acting school all day and works in a factory all night, alongside sympathetic aunt Marie Blake (who has nothing to do in the film whatsoever, not even dote on Rainer when she’s down).

So one fateful night—in the first ten minutes of the eighty minute movie—stage sensation Genevieve Tobin (who’s also way too highly billed at fifth) shows up at the factory with her wealthy beau, Alan Marshal. There’s a little incident, but it’s not important other than to introduce Rainer to Marshal so she can make up this grandiose lie about having an affair with him. Eventually Goddard meets Marshal socially and sets a trap for Rainer, hoping to humiliate her.

Will Marshal let himself be played? Does it end up mattering?

I won’t spoil the first, but it doesn’t end up mattering at all for the narrative. When Rainer gets her big break, it’s got nothing to do with the plot until that point. It’s incredible how fast screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr. get bored with their… screenplay. Other than Goddard, the script doesn’t dwell on anyone. Turner and Grey are interchangeable, Rutherford is mostly scenery until she all of a sudden gets attention. Goddard doesn’t have a character. She exists as a foil to torment Rainer, who’s usually too busy in her own head to even notice Goddard’s plotting cruelty.

The third act has this big showdown between Rainer and Sondergaard, following the film infusing a “Sondergaard is getting dissed for being an actress nearing forty” subplot, which also brings in Henry Stephenson (as the headmaster) quite a bit. Stephenson’s only slightly less unbelievable as an accomplished Parisian actor than Sondergaard, who no one thought to give more characterization than shrill. She’s in the second scene of the film, bitching about (at that point) utterly harmless and barely introduced Rainer. Sondergaard is opposite Margaret Dumont in that scene; Dumont’s great. Shame she’s only in the movie for two scenes and never when Rainer’s finally out of her shell, which takes way too long. Especially for a movie ostensibly about her.

Rainer’s performance is fine. She gives the best performance in the film, which isn’t much of a compliment. Vajda and McCall can’t even be bothered with thin caricaturization, much less thin characterization. Marshal, for instance, is an utter bore. He’s got some charm, but he’s dramatically inert, upstaged by everyone opposite him. Including an uncredited, nearly silent John Picorri as his valet. Sinclair doesn’t know how to direct his cast, but he really doesn’t know how to direct Marshal.

Of the students, Grey’s probably the best. If Goddard got a character before the third act, she might be better but since she doesn’t… nope. Turner’s kind of annoying.

Sondergaard, who isn’t important for the majority of the runtime, ends up being the most important player in the film. She’s really not up for it. Stephenson’s miscast. Brooks gets a rotten deal as his son too. Supposedly Brooks can’t act. But based on the exercises in the acting classes, none of the students can act. It’s not until the third act, when Rainer’s on a real stage, there’s any evidence of ability. Watching Rainer’s play in the movie, you wish the movie were just Rainer in the play. It might make up for the rest of the nonsense. Unfortunately, it’s not the movie and it’s also way too quick an interlude. Because then there’s the wrap-up, which is simultaneously tepid and vapid.

Dramatic School isn’t terrible. It doesn’t have enough energy to be terrible. Rainer’s got potential, but the script isn’t there and the direction isn’t there. Her character’s name is Louise too. It’s like, if you’re going to have the main character be an aspiring actress with the same name as the successful actress playing her… maybe there ought to be something to that coincidence. At least some emphasis. Instead, the script does everything it can to avoid Rainer and focus on everyone around her. But not give them anything to do until the end. And even at the end it’s just busywork, resolving pointless plot threads.

The film’s competent and useless. Even as a vehicle—as it seems to have been—for MGM ingenues, it’s useless. It seems like it’s more producer Mervyn LeRoy’s fault than anyone else’s. Like, Sinclair obviously wasn’t going to come through on the direction. Ditto the screenwriters. Someone needed to right the ship. No one does.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert B. Sinclair; screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr., based on a play by Hans Székely and Zoltan Egyed; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Luise Rainer (Louise Mauban), Alan Marshal (Marquis Andre D’Abbencourt), Paulette Goddard (Nana), Gale Sondergaard (Madame Charlot), Marie Blake (Annette), Lana Turner (Mado), Virginia Grey (Simone), Ann Rutherford (Yvonne), John Hubbard (Fleury), Genevieve Tobin (Gina Bertier), Henry Stephenson (Pasquel Sr.), Rand Brooks (Pasquel Jr.), and Margaret Dumont (Pantomime Teacher).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | LUISE RAINER: AN INCOMPLETE FILMOGRAPHY.

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The Cocoanuts (1929, Robert Florey and Joseph Santley)

The only stand-out sequence in The Cocoanuts comes at the end, when Chico is playing the piano. One of the directors–or both of them–finally had a good instinct and cut to a close-up of Chico’s hands playing. It overrides the first shot of the piano playing, which doesn’t show Chico’s hands at all and barely his expressions; the second shot has hand and expression, so it’s fine. But that close-up is a real surprise, given there’s nothing else impressive as far as the directing goes in The Cocoanuts.

Well, except maybe the emphasis on the dancers’ legs. Directors Florey and Santley can’t figure out depth of field for any other shots, but they sure can when there are dancers’ legs in frame. It’s a little gaudy and more than a little sensational, but it’s competently executed gaudy and sensational.

Otherwise, there’s no competent execution direction in the film. The Cocoanuts’ directors waver between middling and medicore.

The film’s able to coast on the Marx Brothers–and villains Cyril Ring and Kay Francis–into the third act. It gets really long at times (it doesn’t even show a pulse until Harpo and Chico show up twenty minutes in) and musical romantic leads Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton have a distressing lack of chemistry, but it gets there. Even with Chico and Harpo stuck having to play off Basil Ruysdael’s stuffed shirt detective. Even with Groucho looking visibly bored during some of his monologues, which are usually poorly edited and directed without any energy. Even with Zeppo–top-billed of the Brothers–having four scenes and getting blocked out in most of the third act.

I mean, the back of an extra’s head blocking him out does mean he doesn’t have to look bored during the nonsensical wedding announcement party Margaret Dumont is throwing for daughter Eaton. It’s a gaucho-themed party, though some of the female guests are wearing gowns with crinolines (dome-shaped gowns). The party’s got to be a delight to dissect for costume and production designers.

Cocoanuts takes place in Florida, with Groucho a hotel manager and would-be land baron who can’t attract guests to his hotel (it’s unclear why there the opening establishing shots of the beach are packed with ostensible vactioneers) and can’t sell his properties. One of the scenes the directors screw up is Chico messing up Groucho’s land auction.

Ring is a scumbag blue blood who seems to have lost his money in the Crash, but Dumont’s still got hers and he wants to marry Eaton for it. But she’s in love with Shaw (apparently no one noticed Eaton singing the song Shaw writes for her to serenade Ring at one point makes Eaton even more disposably unlikable). So Francis schemes to help him get rich another–they’re going to steal Dumont’s jewels and frame Chico and Harpo. Their plan doesn’t play out, but still goes their way enough to cause some drama. Cocoanuts is heavy on character setup in the first act (pre-Chico and Harpo, whose introduction turns into a ten minute scene), then completely forgets about the characters. Francis and Ring are still pretty good. The scene where she tries to seduce Harpo is solid (it ought to be great, but for Florey and Santley).

And Ring is a sturdy scumbag.

Eaton’s bad. Shaw is bad with Eaton, but he actually plays really well with the Marx Brothers.

Ruysdael sucks the life out of the film every time he’s onscreen. The third act starts with him getting his own musical number (with a lot of assistance from people who can sing), which gets things off on rocky footing. As if the ornate hacienda, which is apparently part of Groucho’s failing hotel (Dumont and Eaton are his only paying guests), isn’t enough of a credulity pitfall. It actually starts with an excellent shot–kicking off a music number–but that one glimmer of technical hope doesn’t carry through.

Dumont and Groucho have some okay scenes together but nothing great. Her characterization is too thin. She can figure out Groucho (until his manly charms overpower her good sense), but she doesn’t notice Ring’s a scuz? It doesn’t play. And Eaton lets Dumont walk all over her in scenes, even though Dumont’s not trying to do so; Eaton visibly recedes opposite other actors.

Again, the directors.

The sets are good–the whole thing, exteriors included, are shot on interior sets–but the directors don’t really know how to use them. Or they know how to use them for half the frame. There will be a dance number on the bottom half of the screen and its audience ignoring its existence on the top half.

Despite all its problems, The Cocoanuts is still manages to disappoint in the end. The finale is nowhere near effective enough–it doesn’t help Groucho and Chico both look exasperated sitting through a lot of it. Chico in particular seems like he wants to be anywhere else. Harpo at least gets a okay decent drunk scene. Next to them, Francis manages to hold it together though.

The directors sink the picture.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Florey and Joseph Santley; screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman; director of photography, George J. Folsey; edited by Barney Rogan; music by Frank Tours; produced by Walter Wanger; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Zeppo Marx (Jamison), Groucho Marx (Hammer), Harpo Marx (Harpo), Chico Marx (Chico), Oscar Shaw (Bob), Mary Eaton (Polly), Cyril Ring (Yates), Kay Francis (Penelope), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Potter), and Basil Ruysdael (Hennessy).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE FAVORITE FOURSOME BLOGATHON HOSTED BY STEVE OF MOVIE MOVIE BLOG BLOG.


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Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey)

Duck Soup is madness. It’s not divine madness or sublime madness. It’s comedic madness, which is fine, but it’s a tad frantic and a tad distracted. The film opens with Margaret Dumont’s wealthy widow getting Groucho Marx installed as a head of state. Turns out evil Louis Calhern–a neighboring country’s ambassador–wants to create unrest and he’s setting vixen Raquel Torres on Groucho to get it done.

Only Groucho isn’t interested and he never really gets interested. Oh, Zeppo’s his assistant. Zeppo has nothing to do in Duck Soup.

Groucho as President is funnier in concept than execution–director McCarey seems disinterested in Groucho’s storyline, instead focusing on Chico and Harpo’s battles with a lemonade stand owner, played by Edgar Kennedy. There are some musical numbers, which get a smile and are well-produced, but they’re filler. Duck Soup runs under seventy minutes. There shouldn’t be a lot of filler and there’s a whole bunch of it.

Chico and Harpo are spies for Calhern, but Chico also works for Groucho. It’s madness, after all, a series of non sequiturs run together, with the audience left out of most of the jokes. The finale has all four Marx Brothers in a variety of soldier outfits. It’s cute and not a bad setup, only the jokes never arrive. McCarey’s rushing to get the thing finished.

There are some great Harpo moments and a fantastic Harpo and Chico dress as Groucho sequence. Those moments simply don’t add up or make enough of a difference. Duck Soup doesn’t have much narrative logic–something McCarey could embrace and amp up the lunacy; he doesn’t. By the end of the second act musical number, everyone looks exhausted. The whole picture has become a metaphor for McCarey’s universal disinterest and Zeppo’s growing on.

Then comes the third act, which has the two countries at war. It’s mostly poorly cut sight gags–uncredited editor LeRoy Stone never does a great job, but in the third act, he completely gives up. Duck Soup is a surrender (no spoilers). The film doesn’t even come up with a good comeuppance for Calhern, who really, really, really deserves one.

The script–from Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby–and then also Arthur Sheekman and Nat Perrin contributing additional dialogue (perhaps the funnier stuff for Chico and Harpo)–is always problematic. McCarey’s direction is always problematic. The actors get away mostly unscathed, however. Even if Dumont gets almost nothing to do. She’s in the picture a lot–Zeppo’s got nothing to do, but he’s barely in Duck Soup; but the film breaks the cardinal rule–it’s a Marx Brothers movie and it wastes Margaret Dumont.

It’s a shame too, as the film’s probably only a rewrite or two away from greatness.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Leo McCarey; screenplay by Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby; director of photography, Henry Sharp; edited by LeRoy Stone; produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Rufus T. Firefly), Harpo Marx (Pinky), Chico Marx (Chicolini), Zeppo Marx (Bob Roland), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Gloria Teasdale), Raquel Torres (Vera Marcal), Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino), and Edgar Kennedy (Lemonade Vendor).


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Animal Crackers (1930, Victor Heerman)

After initially teasing some kind of narrative, Animal Crackers gives it up and embraces not just being a stage adaptation (hope I don’t forget to talk about that aspect) but also a series of sketches. Not just comedy sketches, but also musical ones.

The film takes place over a day. It starts one morning, it ends the next morning. In that time, besides the Marx Brothers arrival at the swank, palatial home of Margaret Dumont (who’s particularly wonderful here), there’s a missing painting. That missing painting is as far as Crackers goes narrative. Groucho being an explorer who’s sort of courting Dumont? Not as important as a sketch with Chico or Zeppo.

For a while, when Crackers is finding its footing, the lack of narrative is annoying. There’s a bunch of great supporting performances–Dumont, of course, but also Lillian Roth as her daughter and Margaret Irving as her society nemesis–in these little moments. They have the most story without the Marx Brothers. Louis Sorin, as Groucho’s rival for Dumont, gets some good moments, but with the Brothers. It feels incredibly disjointed.

Director Heerman can never decide how to stage the action. For example, Groucho breaks the fourth wall to acknowledge the audience and loses Heerman. But, quite often, Heerman’s pragmatism serendipitously makes the awkward exquisite.

The last twenty minutes, as every plot absurdity gets integrated just because it’d be too much work to keep things sorted, gives Crackers a manic pace to the sublime finish. It ends gloriously.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Heerman; screenplay by Pierre Collings and Morrie Ryskind, based on the play by George S. Kaufman, Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby; director of photography, George J. Folsey; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Groucho Marx (Captain Jeffrey Spaulding), Harpo Marx (The Professor), Chico Marx (Signor Emanuel Ravelli), Zeppo Marx (Horatio Jamison), Lillian Roth (Arabella Rittenhouse), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Rittenhouse), Louis Sorin (Roscoe Chandler), Hal Thompson (John Parker), Margaret Irving (Mrs. Whitehead), Kathryn Reece (Grace Carpenter), Robert Greig (Hives) and Edward Metcalf (Hennessey).


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